Step inside Lear Corp.'s reality center, and you'll find an atmosphere that seems -- well, a little unreal. A dark screen that stretches 20 feet wide and 8 feet high dominates the room. Tones of gray, black, and white give the place an otherworldly feel. You settle behind a granite-gray desk, switch off the lights, charge up the computers, and -- bam! -- you're inside a sumptuous automobile interior. You move through the vehicle, watching as lifelike images zoom by. You make your way past sleek, leather-bound captain's chairs. Finally, you hurtle past a glowing, state-of-the-art dashboard.
You've just completed a virtual-reality tour of the Chevrolet Express LT, a new luxury van that Lear helped design and build. Two years ago, that vehicle was just a gleam in the eyes of a few General Motors executives. Today, you can not only take a virtual spin in an Express LT -- you can also drive the real thing. Early this year, the first models started coming off a GM assembly line near St. Louis.
In the automotive world, that kind of turnaround time is almost impossibly quick. Even when the shell of a vehicle already exists, as it did in this case, the vehicle-design schedule traditionally spans about three years. Between the initial concept and the production-ready design lies a painstaking clay-modeling process that typically involves at least a half-dozen costly iterations. But by shifting much of that process to a virtual-reality environment, Lear has cut the product-development period to a year and a half.
Lear is not the only company to take advantage of VR technology. Other companies in other industries -- from oil exploration to fashion design -- have gone far in turning what had been a gimmicky science-fiction phenomenon into an essential design tool. Yet Lear stands out for its ability to leverage VR, along with other digital technologies, into a means of survival within a fast-changing, increasingly competitive industry.
GM awarded Lear the lucrative contract for the Express LT largely because of the speed and flexibility that Lear's use of technology makes possible. "We always thought of Lear as a great seating company," says Linda Cook, 45, GM's planning director for commercial trucks and vans. "We didn't realize how much else it could do. Lear really needed that technology to get our attention."
Lear, based in Southfield, Michigan, has roots that go back to 1917. By the 1990s, it had become the world's biggest manufacturer of automotive seating. (If you've sat in anything from a Chevy to a Ferrari recently, then you've probably enjoyed the comfort of a Lear product.) But in the mid-1990s, the auto-parts industry entered a period of aggressive consolidation. Instead of relying on thousands of small vendors to make each part separately, automakers wanted to buy complete systems from a few big suppliers. So Lear snapped up smaller companies and combined them into an operation that was capable of making an entire vehicle interior. It also invested heavily in the latest computer-aided-design (CAD) software and in other new technologies. By 2000, thanks to acquisitions and expansion into new product areas, sales had climbed to $14.1 billion.
Lear's technology-driven success hasn't come easily. Along the way, Lear has learned that virtual reality has very real limits -- and that success depends on getting real about what technology can and cannot do. "Technology makes things faster and more cost-effective, but it's not perfect," notes John Phillips, 36, director of advanced product development, who is in charge of the Reality Center. "It requires you to be as flexible as you can be." While VR and CAD help streamline the design process, technicians and designers have come to see that there's no substitute for human ingenuity, or for teamwork, or for making a design real to the touch.
Not so long ago, designing car seats and other auto parts was a dirty-fingernails affair. At Lear, designers, engineers, and sculptors used to work extensively with 3-D clay renderings of seats and doors. Designers would sweep their hands along the brownish-orange sculpting clay, feeling each angle and curve. Sculptors would shave off slivers to create just the right contours.
Computer-aided design was supposed to change all of that -- and, to a large extent, it has. CAD first appeared in the auto industry in the late 1970s, but it didn't reach a critical mass of power and capability until the mid-1990s. That's when Lear decided to invest in an animated virtual-reality package from Alias|Wavefront, a software subsidiary of Silicon Graphics. By 1998, the Reality Center was under construction, complete with a triple-projection screen and three digitized drawing boards. Out went the chisel; in came the cursor. Thanks to this technology, Lear has all but eliminated the slow, muck-filled process of building prototype after prototype.
Yet Lear soon realized that it would be a mistake to throw out the old clay-modeling ways altogether. "Our goal is always to get to market faster," says Steven J. Allen, 46, former virtual-design engineering manager at Lear. (Allen left Lear early this year to take a job at Ford.) "But you've got to be able to put a qualified rear end in the seat. If you don't understand sculpture in the real world, you can't sculpt on a computer."
At some point, in other words, reality has to stop being virtual. After all, car design ultimately depends on extremely tactile impressions: how firm a seat is, how its upholstery or leather feels. Designers themselves need to see and touch a physical version of what they are working to create. So do those who are investing in that design. For deCADes, auto executives have read the lines of a clay model with their hands, or poked their way around the foam and plastic of a designer's mock-up. Because those habits die slowly, Lear typically makes at least one physical prototype of every product that it develops in the Reality Center.
The Lear team has also discovered that VR technology sometimes falls short even on its own terms. Trying to mimic real life inside a computer can produce results that are just a little too perfect. So the team infuses "mistakes" into its virtual designs. It might, for example, scan in real leather textures -- textures that have imperfections in them. "Real life isn't flawless," notes Jaron Rothkop, 30, a senior industrial designer at Lear.
Building in minor flaws gives Lear an edge with customers, who appreciate knowing that what they see in Lear's virtual world is what they will get in the real world. "My goal is to destroy the difference between what's real and what's perceived," says Allen. "I don't want any doubt that you're looking at a product, not a concept."
In exploring new technologies, the Lear team was tempted at first by the prospect of using them to change long-standing ways of working together. On the surface, those practices seemed to pose a big barrier to efficiency. But here, too, the limits of technology quickly became apparent. "Technology is a tool; it's not your job," quips Rothkop.
Take the Internet. By digitizing much of the design process, Lear has made it possible for designers to send their work back and forth over the Net -- thereby creating a virtual workplace that brings together people from all around the world. In November 1998, for example, Rothkop traveled to a Volvo design center in Sweden and used the Net to work with colleagues at the Reality Center back in Southfield. Where the Internet extends or enhances communication, the Lear team has embraced it. For the most part, though, the real work of designing auto parts remains an up-close-and-personal business.
For that reason, when it came to building the Reality Center, Lear put a premium on creating an environment that would foster collaboration. "We wanted it to be a working room, like a design studio," says Rothkop. The hot thing in virtual reality is the stereoscopic "cave," a space in which people can sit and be completely surrounded by a screen. While that arrangement simulates being in a car, "it can kind of make people nauseated," Rothkop says. Worse yet, only one or two people at a time can sit in the cave -- a situation that has dismal implications for collaboration. The Lear team considered a cave version but chose a simpler design for its virtual-reality room, one that has a flatter screen and a more open space. There's even room in front of the screen for a full-sized truck, so Lear designers can bring together the real and the virtual whenever their work calls for that.
Another temptation that Lear executives faced was to think that CAD and VR would let them break down traditional job barriers and combine the roles of designer, sculptor, and animator into a single worker. Wouldn't it be more efficient, the thinking went, to train one person to be a kind of superdesigner? Think again. In Lear's experience, the seemingly artificial barriers between jobs often turn out to be quite natural. So Lear drew back from the notion of combining jobs.
Today, designers and engineers, sculptors and animators all work together in and around the Reality Center -- talking, arguing, creating. Indeed, they treat the center not just as a place to use technology but also as a place to meet. "There's no control booth, so everyone can operate the system," Rothkop says. "People get very comfortable in here."
In the summer of 1999, people from Lear heard through the Detroit rumor mill that GM wanted to make better use of its commercial-van business. Leaders at GM's van division thought that there might be a profitable niche market for an updated version of the conversion vans that were popular in the 1970s. The basic idea: Take the outer shell of the commercial van, and -- in place of the standard gray plastic seats and black rubber mats -- outfit the vehicle with deluxe leather seating and flip-down, flat-panel screens, along with other high-tech gadgets.
A team from Lear, meanwhile, had independently arrived at a similar idea. The team took that idea to people from GM's van division, who liked what they saw and paid Lear for the concept. The next step -- for Lear, the key step -- was to go from concept to contract. And speed was of the essence. "It would have taken two, maybe three years to make a van like this in the GM system," says Larry Szydlowski, 59, GM's program manager for the Express IT. In that time, the demand for such a van might have come and gone -- or, worse, a rival carmaker might have implemented the idea first.
The Lear team told GM that it could go from contract to product in just a year. Making that claim was pretty cocky of Lear: The company hadn't proved that it could do this kind of full-scale makeover. But the Lear team, pinning its faith on the company's own technological makeover, put its money where its mouth was. In August 1999, after going through a series of design iterations in the Reality Center, Lear created a physical prototype to show GM -- a costly move that most suppliers are loath to make if they have not yet secured a contract.
People from GM were impressed -- both by the risk that Lear took and by the speed with which Lear was able to work. "Typically, a supplier would come back to us four or five months later with some mock-ups," says Cook. "The Lear folks took 30 days, and it was as if they had taken the ideas right out of our brains." By February 2000, Lear had landed the contract -- and a year later, as promised, the Express LT was in production.
Cook and Szydlowski knew that they had a winner last January, when they took a group of GM engineers on a test-drive of one of the van's first working models. Usually, on a test-drive, everyone clamors to get in the driver's seat. But this time, "nobody wanted to drive," Cook recalls. "Everybody wanted to sit in back and watch videos and play computer games."
Fara Warner (email@example.com), a Fast Company senior writer, is based in San Francisco. Visit Lear Corp. on the Web (www.lear.com).
Sidebar: Model Team
Bob Hamilton stares at the giant screen in the Reality Center at Lear Corp. With a few clicks of his mouse and a series of rapid-fire keystrokes, he's creating a virtual world using CAD software. Amid the purple, red, and green lines that cross the screen, he seems to have carved out a massive curved tunnel. In fact, he has rendered a 2-mm-wide groove from the top of an engine cover. (The days when Lear made only car seats are long past.)
Hamilton, 38, is a virtual-design leader, but he might just as easily be called a "computer sculptor." Today, he is "sculpting" a 3-D version of 2-D art created by his collaborator, industrial designer Marc Beauregard. While CAD technology might make it possible to combine their two jobs into one, they prefer to work as a team. "I try to stay as digital as I can," says Beauregard, 34 -- but he notes that technology has its limits. He often develops his designs on paper before moving to a computer. And he still hands off his designs to Hamilton, rather than taking on the sculpting task himself.
Hamilton has a background in real-world manufacturing that serves him well in his virtual-design work -- and makes him a highly valued partner to Beauregard. Because he understands manufacturing, he knows whether a particular curve or depth can actually be mass-produced from stamped metal or plastic. "I'm the guy who keeps everyone honest," says Hamilton.